Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Game One - EC Quarter Finals: Habs vs. Bolts


- Okay, even though Price hasn't looked his usual self, you still have to give the Habs a huge, huge advantage in overtime.

- Therrien sends out his pluggers and grinders to start the OT.

- Stamkos really is an incredible player - not just for his ability to score, but for doing all the small things right. There's a good case to be made he's the best player in the world right now.

- Weaver/Bouillon duo really nerve racking. Tampa forwards are blowing past them wide, and its creating quality scoring chances. Tampa with much faster tempo to start this OT.

- Best lines for the Habs tonight, Desharnais/Vanek/Pacioretty, and Eller/Gionta/Bourque. By far.

- Price with a beauty save off soft coverage on Tampa rush by Emelin and Markov. That's the Price we're all accustomed to.

- Usual playoff OT pattern. Fast start the first 3 or 4 minutes, and then both teams settle in and try not to make any fatal mistakes. It's getting tight right now.

- Daniel Briere with a rare shift. Mr. Playoffs hasn't been much of a factor tonight.

- Love the Habs attitude. Just get it on Lindback, no matter what the distance or angle. Just get it on net.

- Man, Almost Bourque has been very almost this overtime. Really appreciate his effort though - he's showing up. He and this Eller line have looked fantastic tonight.

- Wow, Bouillon, of all guys, with a possible game-saving recovery there. That's a big heart play.

- Josh Gorges with a total game saving puck clearance in the crease, the result of tremendous hustle. Tampa comes within a whisker.

- The more I watch these two teams play, the more I'm struck by how much more depth the Habs have. The Bolts might have a more dangerous top scoring line, but top to bottom, the Habs are clearly the better team - on paper.

- Hoo boy, Stamkos line at it again with Subban and Gorges in disorganized panic, and Price with two excellent back to back saves. Probably his best of the night.

- This OT really picking up speed, both teams sensing a possible end. Transition games both directions is very strong, very fast.

- Tampa taking over possession here with 6 minutes left, they're pelting Price with shots, Habs on their heels. Uh-oh.

- Vanek to Pacioretty, who hits the post, Lindback totally down and out. Brilliant pass by Vanek, but Patches can't bury. Hoo boy.

- If Habs lose this, Max will never sleep soundly again for months. What a huge miss.

- WEISE!!! Perfect feed by Mr. Playoffs Briere from behind the net, Tampa's defense making the fatal error with both defensemen gone chasing the puck, leaving Lindback totally out to dry in front. No chance for Lindback, and the Habs win the game. Deservedly!!!

- Habs won a game in which they totally out possessed and out shot their opponent. That's not part of the Habs winning formula this season, which for Canadiens fans, is very, very good news.


- Quite the contest here, as anticipated the score is as close as it can get, but the play so far has been decidedly in the Habs' favor, more so than any other game between these two this season.

- Eller very quietly, is having an excellent game so far, their role is definitely checking, there's no doubt about that. They've been driving the Bolts nuts in constantly interrupting the transition. It's preventing the Lightening from generating any sort of momentum. Eller!!!

- Habs passing also decidedly crisper and more accurate. Another very positive sign.

- Vanek with a tremendous drive to the net, taking on two Bolts defensemen and simply steamrolling around them. Brilliant.

- That said, this Desharnais line is giving up a lot of zone chances to Tampa - the Lightening are aptly matching the Stamkos line with them, and it's paying off.

- Great play by Eller, picking up the puck in the neutral zone to get a quality shot on Lindback who was terribly handcuffed. Tampa's netminding, as expected, up for questioning. Lars Eller really seems to be turning his fortunes around tonight.

- Habs, I think quite rightly, are just getting pucks at Lindback with every opportunity.

- Tampa evens the game. Largely as a result of the Habs inability to clear the zone. Emelin couldn't make the original clear, and Prust lost the puck and his check. Bad goal, sloppy goal. Habs are gift wrapping passes to Tampa, keeping them in a game they've been largely outplayed.

- Man, if I'm a Tampa fan, every time that puck gets close to Lindback, I'd start sweating.

- Even with that Tampa goal, Habs are still the much better team in the 3rd. They have better command of the puck (Prust's flub aside), more energy in their legs. They must keep firing on Lindback on each and every opportunity. No need for perfect scoring plays. Just get it on net.

- Eller line is having one heck of a game - there seems to be a great connection between Lars and Gionta, which is fascinating considering they've almost had no playing time together this season.

- What. A. Goal. Vanek perfect streak to the slot, Desharnais with an absolutely perfect pass off the rush. That's as pretty as they come. Vanek has been a two-way monster tonight, his backcheck started that play. This guy is astonishing. 4-3!!!

- Watched the reply on that goal. Just brilliant. Lindback was way too deep in his crease, far too tentative. He's way out of his element, and for playoff hockey, out of his League. Tampa simply must have Bishop back or they're headed up a very steep hill to win this series.

- Oh man. Weaver with a bad, bad, bad pinch at the line, creates an odd man rush for Tampa, with Stamkos on the receiving end. The lead, so hard fought for, is lost. Tampa doing a lot of line matching with Stamkos, and as we noted earlier, it's paid off with great dividends.

- Weaver might sit on the bench for awhile given that play. Therrien will almost certainly think twice about having him out there against #91.

- Habs crazy outpossessing Tampa right now - one of the best games they've had all year. But the Lightening, mainly Stamkos, have been taking advantage of their opportunities. Hockey is weird (and frustrating) that way.

- Ice conditions look pretty terrible. Puck is bouncing all over the place, and it's creating turnovers and odd man rushes.

- Carey Price just not looking "on" tonight. Not his usual stellar self. That's worrying.

- Oy. Goalpost saves the day, but it was a 45 foot shot that totally beat Price stick side. Now definitely worried.

- Vanek having a monster game. Great cross ice feed on the tape to Pacioretty, and a high stick penalty is drawn. Habs with late powerplay to maybe win this game?

- Desharnais was at the end of a shift when that penalty was called, but Therrien elects to keep them out there. That was a bad mistake, and it created a great shorthanded scoring opportunity for Tampa.

- And then Therrien sends out Gorges and Emelin with more than a minute left in the man advantage ... and we wonder why this unit can't score.

- Intense finish, but Habs powerplay again comes up empty. Montreal has, as we've said many times tonight, been the dominating team. But timely scoring may salvage the night for Tampa as we head to overtime. Playoff hockey!


- They've been criticized for their defensive slack, but I've seen Vanek make a couple of very impressive backchecks to break up Tampa rushes.

- Bolts seem to be playing a pretty uptempo 2nd period - decided the better team the first 5 minutes.

- Great shift for Eller. He looks a zillion times more involved compared to what we saw last three months of the regular season.

- Lindback and rebounds don't appear to be the best of friends. Habs could pot a few simply by crashing the net.

- Subban goes for a bodycheck kill on Palat, and totally misses. Gets caught way up ice. That's the play that got him into some hot water with his coach.

- Pretty physical second period, teams seem more focused on finishing checks than they are finishing shots on goal. Just five registered through the first 10 minutes.

- Price really hasn't been tested much in the period,  Habs are doing a pretty good job with zone coverage and shot blocking.

- Saw that CBC stat. Faceoffs 26-9 in favor of Tampa. That's got to even up soon or it could come back to bite the Habs.

- Stamkos end to end. Shot Price probably should have had. 2-1.

- Call on Subban in inexplicable. He gets slashed and his reward is a two minute penalty.

- Gionta!! Shorthanded break, terrible defensive by the Bolts, and the Captain makes Lindback look weak between the legs. Just deserts considering the absurdity of the Subban penalty.

- Another solid period for the Habs, although the Bolts did play a much more even period as opposed to the first, where Tampa was very much dominated. While the Habs powerplay is still firing blanks, their penalty kill is looking pretty solid, which will be a critical factor in the series, considering how well Tampa's powerplay was producing the last quarter of the regular season..


- Wasn't able to catch the game on flight, but the first period stats look very, very good. Habs clearly out possessed and outplayed Tampa, the net result being a clear edge in shots. It also appears that Briere had a very good period, so his reputation for delivering in the post-season seems to be in tact. Lindback, from what I've read, struggled with his rebound control. Good and promising period!!


Tonight's live game blogging is up in the air, as I'm on a flight en route to Montreal just as the puck is dropping in Tampa. If AC has the game on board, I'll be posting from there. Otherwise, NO BLOGGING BECAUSE AIRPLANES ARE TERRIBLE.


Oh boy. What to think, what to think?

I must confess, I'm torn. Yes, I'm an unadulterated biased fan of the Montreal Canadiens. So writing these playoff series previews is inherently difficult. One can't help but be excited, as a Habs fan, about the potential of this team because the roster is simply teeming with talent, as much as this organization has seen in more than 20 years. From elite goaltending in Carey Price, to elite defense in P.K. Subban, to elite offensive prowess in Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek. Not to forget, of course, the supporting cast of very good, although not-quite elite players. Andrei Markov, Thomas Plekanec, Brandon Prust, heck ... we'll even toss in a Daniel Briere and David Desharnais. Then there's the steadfast Josh Gorges, the excellent deadline pickup Michael Weaver, and outstanding grinders like Travis Moen and Ryan White.

From a distance, the Montreal Canadiens are blessed with enormous talent and depth.

But ...

Achievement. Not exactly a strong suit for this team. With all of that talent, with all of that depth, the Habs mustered out an unimpressive 100 point season. Normally, 100 points is a pretty impressive milestone. But for this team, this year - not so much.

It all begins and ends with possession, which to great extent, is a refection upon this organization's weakest link in the chain - its coaching philosophy.

While the Habs managed to finish with the League's 9th best record, its approach to winning games has largely been the result of following a pretty crude and simplistic strategy: let's be carried by our goaltending, or specifically, Carey Price.

The final season numbers are just ... so ... not good. Fenwick percentages, the Habs ranked 22nd overall, behind non-playoff teams like (get ready for this), the New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers. When you're keeping company - actually, when you're statistically worse than teams that finished almost near the bottom of the League in points, you're not heading in a very good direction.

Team Corsi, the situation is even worse. 26th overall. The Canadiens surrendered 2,396 shot attempts during the season - which is roughly 500+ more than teams that are legitimate Stanley Cup competitors such as the L.A. Kings and Boston Bruins.

The philosophy is flawed. Michel Therrien has developed a mysterious lack of faith and believe in his roster. Instead of leveraging his team's most significant advantages - speed and skill, Therrien has instead instructed his players to play puck afraid - choosing instead to sacrifice team transition for the sake of clearing the puck out of the defensive zone at all costs. The few times when the Canadiens have puck control on a transition, players are instructed not to utilize their speed and skill assets by carrying the zone, but instead, are choosing to dump and chase pucks.

It's an old-school, ultra-conservative approach to playing hockey that's ill-fitting this team's character and characteristics. It means that unless and until a fundamental readjustment in philosophy is taken, the Montreal Canadiens are destined to underachieve - be it the regular season, or the post-season. At least, with Therrien at the helm.

So ... this series. What to think?

On paper, at least when focused on roster comparisons, the differences are incredibly narrow. The results have born this out - as each game played between these two clubs this year have been decided by one goal difference..

So the margin for error is razor thin. Which is why I'm picking the Canadiens to win this series in 6 games.

The reason? Plain and simple - injuries. They've devastated Tampa's lineup at the worst possible time, and they've come to the Habs advantage at the best possible time. At the foremost of the injury issue is Ben Bishop, who's played a tremendous season - certainly in the top 5 amongst all goatenders in the League. In case you've been on the moon the past couple of weeks, Bishop went down with an arm injury last weekend, and has been ruled out for play in game one. Possibly longer.

From Tampa's perspective, to lose Bishop would be not unlike the Habs losing Carey Price. Goodbye series, goodbye season. Actually, the Habs did endure that last spring losing Price to a knee injury. After that, the Ottawa Senators cakewalked their way to victory.

The other intangibles are pretty much even. For GPG Tampa registered 2.83 to Montreal's 2.55 (advantage Tampa), defensively, Montreal surrendered 2.45 GA/G, to Tampa's 2.55 (advantage Habs). Specialty teams, the Habs dominated on the PK, finishing with the League's 4th best average, while Tampa struggled a bit, finishing 23rd. However on the powerplay, Tampa holds the advantage, posting a 18.5% success rate, versus Montreal's 17.2% rate - and lest we forget, the Habs man advantage is currently experiencing its greatest dry spell, not just this season, but in the past 5 years, going 0 for its last 23. That's bad.

So the intangibles are split, offensively and defensively. When the division is so narrow, there's little left to decide other than goaltending, and because of unfortunate circumstances for the Lightening, the Habs hold a huge advantage. Price versus Lindback? There's just no contest.

At least, on paper.

So contrary to what many of the experts are saying (remember these same experts had picked the Leafs to win a wild card spot and the Habs to miss the playoffs), I'm taking the Habs in six games. I do believe, biases aside, that the Habs have the depth and the goaltending advantage to help them overcome Tampa.

Beyond the first round, however, is where the road will almost certainly come to an end for this Habs team.

Other Series:
- Boston in 6.
- Columbus in 7.
- New York Rangers in 6.

- Los Angeles in 7 (this is gonna be a great series).
- Minnesota in 6 (sorry Avs, you're a lousy possession team too).
- Chicago in 6
- Anaheim in 4.


We got a series breakdown and predictions coming up later this evening. For now, a few odds and ends from news today:

- Habs spent most of today just practicing their powerplay, which if you hadn't heard lately, has vanished into the twilight zone (oh-fer-23 and counting).

- Travis Moen practiced today, and is a maybe for game one.
- Brandon Prust also practiced today, and is a maybe for game one.
- Lars Eller also also practiced today, and is a maybe for game one.
- Ben Bishop stayed home today. He's out for game one. Possibly longer.

Bolts Practice Lines Today:

Line 1: Palat Johnson Stamkos
Line 2: Killorn Filpula Callahan
Line 3: Panik Thompson Purcell
Line 4: Brown Paquette Kucherov 




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